Monday, November 7, 2016

Brooks on Books: Into the Dark: The Hidden World of Film Noir 1941-1950

This is a stunning, hefty collection of beautiful pictures of perhaps the COOLEST film genre of all: film noir. It's branded with the TCM logo, and it does justice to The Greatest Cable Channel Known to Mankind.  I was going to say something mildly derogatory at the beginning of this post, but I love the book so much, I want to express how great it is first before I offer a faint criticism.

Into the Dark is great for what it is. The one thing I take some  exception to is the intro by author Mark Vieira.  He says this is the first book to tell the story of noir in its own voice, and he makes what appear to be some pretty big pronouncements about what the text accomplishes. The thing is, the format of the book makes it impossible to be quite as comprehensive as he makes it sound. My advice is to sit back and enjoy the book for what it actually is.

What it is: A collection of entries about 80-some films. The main attraction is the array of gorgeous publicity photos, given to us in glorious black and white (an occasional color pic, like a great one for Out in the Past, shows up) with suitable credit to the set photographers. One could leaf through the book, only viewing these shots, and enjoy the experience. I can't say a whole lot about the illustrated portion of Into the Dark. It's fantastic, and you need to see it to appreciate it.

However, Vieira combed through archival materials to offer outstanding tidbits for each movie. Some entries are bigger than others, but most are about 2-3 pages with the actual text making up about a third or a half of the total entry. For each film, after citing the studio and release date, Vieira lists basic credits, including cinematographer and source material in addition to producer, director, screenwriter, and cast. There is a one-sentence plot summary. Then the fun begins.

In each section, Vieira includes samplings from these categories: Production Quote (archival comment taken from trade paper or The Los Angeles Times or internal studio correspondence); Reviews (quotes from contemporary reviews, usually from The LAT or The New York Times); Letter from Regional Theater Owner (self-explanatory, usually from a trade pub like Motion Picture Herald and usually from some small southern or Midwestern town); and Artist Comment (quote from someone connected to the production, usually with the benefit of some historical perspective).

Each category is fascinating. The Production Quotes offer some alternate histories in their reportage of concepts that changed during filmmaking and roles that were recast. The review excerpts are a riot, but after reading so many negative reviews, you start to wonder why Vieira uses NYT critic Bosley Crowther so much. He's so down on so many (now) classics, I wonder if a wider selection of voices would have given a richer picture of the development of noir.

Similarly, the Letter from Regional Theater Owner bit is almost always compelling, and overall it gives a strong impression that these unsettling crime-based movies we love so much were not at all beloved in "flyover country." But with just one comment for each movie, it doesn't seem like a representative sample.

At the end of each film's text section, when it's available, is the budget and gross of each picture. This is a fabulous addition to each entry, but it's frustrating when it's nor available. For example, Key Largo, the 1948 Bogey/Bacall/Robinson flick, is an iconic Warner Brothers classic. It would be nice to see the numbers for it, especially after seeing that a Missouri theater owner called it an "average show that should have done much better business."

Another brief feature that offers valuable context is Vieira's opening to each year. He arranges the noirs in chronological order and opens each calendar year with a Report on the Crime Story Cycle, something excerpted from a piece that appeared at that time (usually from the LAT), followed by Looking Back at Film Noir, an excerpt taken from a later source (Example: Film Noir Reader 3) and also touching on broader themes.

Frankly, the only thing really "wrong" with Into the Dark is that it isn't twice as long.  I would love to see more movies (though Vieira really covers the big ones and also some relative rarities), more text, more everything. The book is brilliantly designed, beautiful  on every page, and a blast to read. I'd love to see a sequel or even a similar book devoted to, say, screwball comedies.

(Note:   Full disclosure: I was lucky enough to find the book at my library, but the $40.00 MSRP does not seem too far out of line considering the book's heft and production quality, though I do wonder if the $22 Kindle price is out of whack considering how the photo quality seems appropriate for print.)

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